Q: Who made you?

A: God.

-- From the Catechism for Younger Children

For centuries, parents and the church engaged in systematically teaching children biblical truths from manuals of Christian doctrine called catechisms. But formal catechizing gradually fell out of favor and today, not many evangelicals are acquainted with the practice.

“Catechisms were often used until about the fifth century,” says Gary Parrett, who wrote, along with J.I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way.Children and new believers were taught “the essentials of the Christian faith, including beliefs, values, practices, and key episodes and dates.”

“Catechism in the general sense of instructing Christian people in the basics of their faith was a part of the life of the church from the beginning to greater and lesser degrees,” adds Paul Wolfe, associate pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Va., and the father of three elementary-school age children.

The decline of catechism began after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The practice did not experience a revival until the Protestant Reformation centuries later.

“The writing and employment of question-and-answer teaching tools especially emerged as a key component of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century,” says Wolfe. “The early Reformers, having recently discovered the true gospel of God’s grace themselves, realized that Christians of all ages desperately needed to be schooled in the fundamentals of that gospel, and they took it upon themselves to produce catechetical documents to that end.”

Despite the revival of catechizing by the Reformers, the practice has once again declined in the 21st century. “The Protestant Reformers renewed the urgency and emphasis on catechesis from the 16th century onward, but it fairly quickly lost its popularity as the unity of Protestants gave way to numerical growth of new denominations,” says Parrett. “Today, there are about 40,000 different denominations, and catechesis now faces a new challenge because of confusion, lack of unity and consistency” among the beliefs of these different groups.

While Wolfe says the Presbyterian tradition he belongs to still cherishes and promotes catechizing children, “sadly, the practice has fallen on hard times of late in other denominations.”

Why Catechize?

While catechizing children may seem old-fashioned, the benefits of following this time-tested tradition are numerous. “Catechizing deepens our knowledge of Scripture, of the Lord’s will for our lives, and of our faith and confidence in the Lord,” says Parrett. “The number of people interested in catechesis seems to be growing today in many circles.”

“The chief benefit to children is that it requires them to state the truth, instead of always hearing the truth stated by others. As they mature, it fosters their own reflecting upon, and wrestling with, the truth, because it’s always ready at hand (in their own minds) for them to work with. It also helps parents to know where their children might be struggling to remember and understand important biblical ideas,” says Wolfe

While catechism has received an unfair reputation of being only about rote memorization, the practice’s very design is to engage children in studying and understanding biblical truths. “The practice of catechizing fosters a well-rounded understanding of the Christian faith because it requires the children to cover the wide scope of Christian truth,” says Wolfe. “Also, like learning hymns, it impresses upon the children the fact that they’re part of the church, since they’re committing to memory the same words that many other children have learned before them and are learning to this day.”